Time flies and it is Chinese New Year again. Although the activities is almost the same every year; visiting families and friends; attending open houses held by Chinese organizations and have good food; it has never been boring.
Every year, Chinese in Malaysia celebrates Chinese New Year with the practice of many traditional beliefs and customs.
A week before the New Year, Chinese would send off Zao Jun the Kitchen God to report to the Jade Emperor on the family’s transgression and good deeds.
Before the reunion dinner with families, a prayer of thanksgiving would be performed to mark the safe passage of the previous years. Some took this opportunity to pray to their ancestors.
On the midnight of the eighth day and throughout the ninth day of Chinese New Year is an important day for Chinese especially those living in Penang and other Northern states of Malaysia. The Hokkiens believed in praying to the Jade Emperor on this important date.
Other than the New Year, Chinese in Malaysia celebrates and beliefs in many different occasions be it a practice of Taoism or Buddhism.
It has been decades and centuries since Chinese migrated to Malaysia or at that time, Malaya since the early 15th century in the Malacca empire when both empires have friendly diplomatic relations. After the First Opium War, the British brought in Chinese to Malaya and Straits Settlements to work in their tin mines and rubber plantations. The largest migration of the Chinese happened during the Chinese civil war, before the establishment of Republic of China.
Our Chinese ancestors who have settled in Malaya has not only brought along Chinese education, trades and the community; they have brought along Chinese cultures that has being preserved until today.
Some even said that the Malaysian Chinese are richer in culture compared to the Chinese in China. After all, the Chinese government is officially atheist. According to a Gallup poll in the year 2012, 47% of China were confirmed atheist. Besides that, in order to become a member of the Communist Party of China which is ruling the country, a person must not have any religious affiliation.
As history only serves as a reference and reminder to us, let us fast forward it to the current issues of the recent years.
In July 2008, it is an honour and a jubilant celebration as George Town together with Malacca has been officially listed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The application of the internationally-recognized status is a long process which has been applied since 1996 until it has been approved 12 years later.
According to Penang Heritage Trust, Malacca and George Town are listed under three criteria: as exceptional examples of multicultural trading towns permeated with many layers of history; as living testimony to cultural and religious diversity reflected in multicultural living heritage, both tangible and intangible; and as townscapes of vernacular architecture – particularly shophouses and townhouses.
While the preservation of the tangible heritage which are the buildings in the inner city of George Town are relatively easy to done as it only requires the compliance of rather technical guidelines; the question of preservation remains largely on the intangible heritage.
Preservation of the intangible heritage as in maintaining the ‘townscape’ which blends the requirements of physical conservation with the preservation of that human culture, traditional trades and communities within the old enclaves of the City.
The declaration of the international heritage status has sparked interests towards the commercial sector particularly the developers to invest in the City for economic benefits. Many of the heritage building owners sold off their properties for the development of hotels or to be rented for commercial purposes. The price of the property in George Town has then been increased be it for the purpose of selling or renting. This trend, has drove away families who has been staying in George Town for decades to other parts of Penang as they can no longer afford the price of the property rental. Some may have been forced to evict to make way for commercial development in the property.
A recent happening in Chulia Street is one of the examples of the trend that has been a concern of heritage preservation. Late last year, the owner of a few lots of shophouses along Chulia Street had his lawyer sent legal notices to the tenants demanding them to move out by March, for a new hotel. The tenants, among which includes an old coffee shop, selling chemical supplies, recyclable items dealer and an antique shop would have to find new shops out of George Town. Some may have even considered to close down their businesses. These businesses have been part of the community and has given a ‘soul’ to the city.
As the traditional trades deteriorates, businesses targeting the tourism sector is mushrooming in every corner of George Town. In 10 more years to come, will the heritage city be manifested by only three types of businesses – modern cafes, hotels and souvenir shops? Will there be no other purpose to ride to George Town other than to drink a cup of over-priced coffee, to stay in a hotel or to buy some souvenirs for a friend? By then, George Town will only be left with simply workers and tourists. We should give it a thought whether if there is a need to coordinate the nature of business in the city itself?
Last year I have visited Dresden, one of the cities in Germany who has obtained the UNESCO World Heritage listing in 2004. However, I have been told by that the city was delisted in 2009 due to the building of a four-lane bridge in the heart of the cultural landscape. This is to remind us that the heritage status is not a permanent listing and we efforts should be taken to preserve the heritage to avoid the same thing that has happened to Dresden.
The Government plays a huge role in the efforts of preserving the heritage and its status, but it does not fall short within the responsibility of all Penangites. As a Penangite myself, I feel that we are part of the stakeholders in preserving and protecting our city.